The Co-operative was established in 1999. It was created as a direct response to the complete lack of a local timber cycle, whereby those working in woodland management were completing unconnected to those wanting to manufacture and sell their wood products.
A group of ten individuals working at different stages of the timber cycle, who were lead by the vision and initiative of Jim O'Shaughnessy, created their own solution by starting the Forest of Avon Wood Products Co-operative.
At a time when the big furniture producers IKEA moved to Bristol, local producers were struggling to sell their products and sustain their businesses. The Co-op was, and still continues to be a highly innovative and progressive project, which directly linked sustainable local woodland management with producers. At the time very few places in the UK had this kind of local timber cycle in place. The Co-op is still one of the leaders of this sustainable vision for local timber cycle management.
Part of the Co-operative's success was in connecting a diverse range of individuals whose complimentary skills and businesses supported one another from woodland managers, to millers, to yurt builders and charcoal makers.
Such social enterprises and co-operatives are now more popular than ever, delivering where local government cannot, in response to the changing social, economic and environmental needs of the UK.
The Wood Yard
Bower Ashton Wood Yard forms an important part of the working buildings contained within the Ashton Court Estate in Bristol. The original architectural building complex dates as far back as the late 18th century.
The building complex is currently owned and managed by Bristol City Council, who's Depot and Parks Departments share occupancy with the Co-operative. Co-operative member tenants predominantly occupy the northern and western ranges of the complex and adjacent yard space. The space occupied by the Co-operative is referred to as Bower Ashton Wood Yard.
In a fittingly organic way, the relationship between the Co-operative and the Wood Yard began with just a handful of dedicated woodworkers, working in substandard conditions in derelict buildings that were otherwise unused and occupied by rats.
The Co-operative formalised their use of the Wood Yard in 2006 with a ten year lease from the council, for a peppercorn rent, in return for a £100,000 investment in the renovation of a number of Wood Yard buildings.
Much of the work was undertaken by Co-operative members themselves, who took on the full array of construction work. The renovation work was extensive, including replacing rotten timbers, removing asbestos, retiling and reguttering. The before and after photos of the renovation work are striking.
The renovation work was financed with a £60,000 loan from Co-op and Community Finance, which was repaid out of the rents from Wood Yard tenants. This enabled the Co-operative to do the bulk of the renovation work, increase tenancies and raise rents to be able to repay the loan.
With this investment we created secure, insulated, dry production units for commercial woodworking individuals and companies. Tenants enjoy industrial power supply, places for storage and processing of large timber and their own workshops. Any extra money raised is reinvested directly into the Co-op, which enables us to continue to improve buildings in the Woodyard.
Structurally the buildings that have been renovated are now safe and will last for decades to come, which has saved the council thousands and protected a grade II listed building from dereliction.
In terms of the wider impact, the renovations have transformed an area of dead space into a thriving creative community, contributing to the cultural and economic landscape of Bower Ashton, situated next to the UWE Arts Campus and the wider Ashton Court Estate. A further 10 year lease was secured in 2016.